YA Fiction and Underlying Gender Expectations

 

 

 

 

 

English:
English: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mainstream Young Adult (YA) fiction contains some of the most popular and influential series of the past few decades. Iconic series like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games have captured the imaginations of millions of kids and adults everywhere. About a year ago, I was just delving into the complicated forays of gender studies and other types of critical theory, so the more I thought about several particular series, the more I noticed a trend and I asked myself, “Why have certain series not only garnered immense popularity, but also sparked fanbases and left cultural footprints that might last for generations while others which are just as powerful have not?”

 

 

Specifically, I had two series on my mind: Uglies  (just the trilogy) by Scott Westerfeld and The Hunger Games by Susanne Collins. Both are extremely similar to the point where I would almost say that Collins borrowed from Westerfeld. Yet Westerfeld’s series, which came a few years before Collins’, hardly has a fanbase to speak of despite it landing on the New York Times bestseller’s list. Among the places I’ve traveled in the Internet and among people my age and younger, no one talks about Uglies and most haven’t even heard of it. To me, both series are on par with each other, although I favor Uglies because it ultimately does not give into one major yet infuriating YA trope: that the heroine chooses one of two boys pining after her.

 

 

That trope, I suspect, is one of the main reasons why Uglies hasn’t left the cultural mark that it deserves to leave. Zooming out further, I think this is a result of which gendered stories are socially acceptable/comfortable to the masses. When I considered Harry Potter and Twilight as well, I saw the pattern more clearly. The kyriarchy, as it manifests specifically in patriarchy, has instilled in us favoritism toward certain kinds of stories happening to certain genders. We are comfortable with boys experiencing epic, heroic quests and girls experiencing thrilling, heterosexual romance. In the end, we want all stories to end neatly by fitting these expected patterns.

 

 

Harry Potter, despite being written by a woman, is a very male story. There are only a few instances where we’re taken outside of Harry’s head and not one of those other POVs is female. The story also follows a classic hero’s journey formula and at the very end, the ultimate evil is vanquished and the main character is married with children. While the series is rich, exciting, and absolutely deserving of its popularity, a factor of that popularity is definitely how easily it conforms to what society accepts as a boy story. Are there amazing female characters? Absolutely. My argument here is not calling into question the quality of the story or the characters. I’m simply pointing out that Harry Potter has benefitted from adhering to a comfortable pattern.

 

 

Twilight benefits similarly. The main character is a female and the action takes a backseat to the obsessive romance. One of the big conflicts in the series is Bella’s choice between romantic partners: Edward or Jacob. In the end, she chooses one over the other and also has a family by that point. Therefore, this series is a comfortable female story. Its major focus is what we are taught to expect of female-centered stories. In boy stories, saving the world takes center stage and romance is usually a subplot. In girl stories, romance is the focus and there might be some action on the side. The vast majority of people will gravitate toward these stories because we have been trained from the start that certain things happen to boys and different things happen to girls. The fact that Twilight fits this comfortable pattern accounts for its popularity just as Harry Potter’s conformation does. In essence, both Harry Potter and Twilight maintain a status quo that leave readers feeling complete whether they realize it or not.

 

 

Uglies and The Hunger Games deviate from this pattern, although Uglies does it more. Both series are essentially action stories that happen to girls. In their own ways, they dismantle or deny the powers that be and save the world (or not). They are free agents, free thinkers, and headstrong in their mission to change or destroy the system once they become aware of it. Yet The Hunger Games ultimately ends in the folds of that pattern in which the main character chooses a love interest and the world is completely peaceful. Although the romance in the series is unquestionably a subplot, it still has Katniss conform to the “girl chooses a boy to be with at the end” trope. Uglies does not. Throughout the series, Tally has two love interests. One dies and the other, she realizes, is not worth getting involved with romantically. Also, she neither chooses to side with the state nor the rebels. Thus, the third book ends in tension and incompleteness if you find comfort in stories that end with love and the destruction of the evil force. This is one of the reasons why I think The Hunger Games left a cultural mark where Uglies didn’t. For the populous, it’s radical enough to challenge one aspect of who action stories happen to, but conforms enough to what we expect happens to girls.

 

 

Also, The Hunger Games has the Tumblr advantage whereas Uglies ended well before Tumblr’s popularity kicked in. I think if Tumblr had been as popular as it is now when Uglies was released, it would’ve gotten much more attention. A movie deal might’ve helped too, but again, a story like Uglies that does not conform to what society is used to a girl experiencing in fiction is less likely to interest major studios.

 

 

This is by no means an extensive post on the matter and there’s probably a lot I’m missing here. If I were a lit major, I would’ve written a thesis on this and if I had more time, I would do some more research/analyzing. I think the trend is changing as people are more willing to change their ideas of what boy or girl stories look like, but it comes with the caveat that all of these stories, whether they deviate or conform, happen to cisgender, heterosexual white people (with the exception of The Hunger Games, but the vast majority of fans don’t realize that Katniss isn’t white). Any progress or attitude shifting is still just a drop in the ocean of changing people’s notions of what makes a comfortable, acceptable, and popular story.

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “YA Fiction and Underlying Gender Expectations

  1. The problem is that the traditional chicken/egg confusion. Or in this case: does society influence our desires or are our desires innate and influencing society? Of course, what is “society” but really just the aggregate of all choices made by the individuals of said society. Thus, you would end up with a tautology: every individual choice is influenced by every individual choice. What if boys just prefer adventure and girls prefer romance? (and/or girls prefer boys that prefer adventure and boys prefer girls that prefer romance)

    Hence why I usually buy more that it is all drawn more from innate biology and desire (which society, being the aggregate, acts like a funhouse mirror and a feedback loop). After all, marketing and societal pressures aren’t all powerful (else New Coke would’ve worked).

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    1. Whether the source is biological or social (it’s really a mix of both), doesn’t negate that the entire system has caused problems and created roles, assumptions, and expectations for everyone while erasing, outcasting, demonizing, or silencing any deviation. Those who have historically held the most privilege and power have not only defined strict roles for themselves, but also for every other group. Speaking as a queer woman, I can look back on my life and see that the people around me/society at large have tried to train me into an expected role of a woman, one that stems from how men have historically defined women. Likewise, men have defined themselves in a particularly rigid fashion and all of this has been going on for so long that much of it feels natural and we don’t think about it too much. I don’t really see too much value in trying to determine if the source of these systems and expectations is biological or social, especially since a lot of people will use “it’s biology” as an excuse to not listen to the experiences of others or not think about the issues with these systems that have been passed down to us.

      That being said, I’m not totally for the destruction of these roles. On the one hand, they help people understand and relate to the world. I have a problem when deviance leads to erasure, death, and other manifestations of oppression. In terms of gender specifically, I’m okay with prescribed roles, but those roles need to be extremely flexible. I’m okay with the general notion that boys prefer adventure and girls prefer romance as long as it’s not also presented with the idea that girls CAN’T prefer or be involved in adventure and boys CAN’T prefer or be involved with romance unless there’s something “wrong” with them. It’s that “something wrong/not normal” notion that comes with any deviance that I have the problem with, especially since most of the deviance is stuff people can’t control (race, orientation, mental ability, etc). I sort of touched on this in a post I wrote about Sailor Moon and femininity. Femininity and masculinity aren’t inherently negative or oppressive things, but there are tons of issues surrounding their application on people.

      So because those stories I talked about in the post reflect and fit into what we’ve developed as “normal,” they gain varying degrees of notoriety/popularity. The more they deviate, the lesser their cultural impact. That popularity reflects, as you said, what people in general find normal/comforting/acceptable, which accounts for their continued popularity, which leads to continued comfort, which leads to continued popularity, etc.

      And of course societal pressures don’t work 100% of the time. If they did, then nothing about society would ever change. However, they’re still powerful influences and representation (or lack thereof) in media sends HUGE and sometimes dangerous messages to their intended targets. When Brave came out, people flipped their shit because Merida didn’t choose a love interest. An action story about a girl is one thing. More and more, we’re seeing female-centered action stories. But an female action story where the heroine doesn’t fall in love at all? It rattled people. It shouldn’t, but it does. People were legitimately concerned about their sons looking up to Merida in that movie. That concern comes from the notion that fictional stories play a part in telling us how we fit into society.

      In the end, I’m really just saying “water is wet,” but I also believe that a lot of these systems, roles, expectations, etc. are invisible and you need to state the obvious to invite critical thinking. I guess I’m also just missing the language I need to pinpoint what exactly I mean.

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